Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi

The Silent, Invisible Case for Independence

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Jonathon Shafi examines the total failure of SNP leaders to develop either a case for independence or a response to the economic crisis.

This article is an abridged version of a post from the Independence Captured newsletter.

Sometimes I get feedback along the following lines: “the SNP are the only vehicle we have to deliver independence. So stop criticising them until after a Yes vote.”

There are three major problems with this formulation. Firstly, the SNP strategy for independence is lacking. Secondly, the prospectus for independence has not caught up with world events and would leave Scotland stranded without economic control. Thirdly, the Scottish Government could be doing so much more with the devolved powers after years of unrivalled political dominance.

Let’s turn to current events. If you support independence you should be, frankly, alarmed at how tepid the SNP leadership response to the cost of living crisis is. As energy bills and food prices soar, the UK is on the precipice of a recession, and with it an economic crisis that could rival the 2008 meltdown.

Strikes are now firmly back on the agenda. The RMT are to be joined by 115,000 Royal Mail staff, and many more besides. Amazon workers have taken wildcat action, as have workers at the Grangemouth refinery. Mainstream figures are warning of dire consequences, including pushing people to an early death, as a result of the economic crisis.

But where, in all of this, is the independence case? The prospect of independence in the modern era cut its teeth in opposition to austerity. Now it feels almost absent. No big ideas, no major policy interventions, no dynamism. Fears are running high over how essentials will be paid for. But independence is not being posed as a coherent alternative.

In another timeline, the SNP has been making a popular case for independence over a period of years. It has been making an argument for maximising Scotland’s resources for the common good, rather than selling off the nation’s economic future to private and foreign capital. It has been charting a course to rebuild from the pandemic in a way that addresses economic injustice. It has been building a campaign infrastructure in communities across the land. It has already brought together a revamped Yes Scotland style campaign so that the independence cause is broader than the SNP leadership.

Now would be the time to activate that campaign organisation. To mobilise the wider platform of support. To showcase the vision for a transformational independence. Yet the SNP leadership are like rabbits caught in the headlights. Not only have they shown up without a plan themselves, they have left the entire movement, to which they have promised a referendum next year, disarmed.

The idea that Scotland is a country on the cusp of statehood doesn’t tally with the current output coming from the SNP leadership, and makes a mockery of claims to a “summer of independence.” We don’t yet have the basics in place.

What we do have, in the form of the Growth Commission, would further exacerbate the crisis in Scotland, leaving it at sea economically and reliant on UK financial institutions and the IMF. Meanwhile the new material fails to meet the challenges of the era, and lacks in scope and ambition.

In place of agenda setting around independence, the SNP leadership are, as a result, reduced to making half hearted pleas. The First Minister calls for further devolution around tax, welfare and borrowing. Ian Blackford urges Boris Johnson, of all people, to reconvene parliament. Truth be told, energies for change are coming from elsewhere.

It is an open question as to whether or not the SNP leadership recognise the depth of the crisis beyond their press lines. Because there is no evidence of planning for what is to come despite the severity of what will be a protracted economic crisis. You can see this in their scene setting white paper. There is an obvious lack of creativity and thought about how to meet the challenges of the period.

They seem to be locked so completely into an understanding of the world based on day to day media operations that they have lost the ability to intervene into the crises that define the era and to drive them towards a plan of action.

The Liberal Democrats are calling for a furlough style intervention, while Gordon Brown is advocating for the temporary nationalisation of energy companies. Why can’t the SNP, with such an immense platform, make stronger demands? They won’t, it appears, go anywhere near calling for the public ownership of energy in the here and now. But they also seem to be hesitant to display how Scotland’s renewable resources could be harnessed to address energy insecurity. This might have something to do with the fact that they are already in the process of selling this enormous asset off.

As David Jamieson writes, the Scottish Government can be flexible on when they have the power to do something, and when they don’t:

“They would prefer you believe in their powerlessness – that Sturgeon is not the perpetrator here but the victim. Sturgeon is far from alone in this – practically everyone in a position of power now pleads that they are subject to powers far beyond their influence. We could make a tour de horizon of the global political and business scene, but it’s sufficient to note that both candidates for British Prime Minister and the energy companies themselves all claim to be overwhelmed by wholesale prices over which they too are powerless, and about which they can do close to nothing…”

In this way, it feels like SNP leaders are simply going through the motions, posting their holiday snaps, and ambling through the crisis without a sense of direction or conviction. The wider policy debate in Scotland is equally paralysed and underwhelming. But the crisis is building, and as time passes, once again, opportunities to advance the case for independence are being missed.

I remember receiving a forwarded e-mail sent by Peter Murrell, the SNP Chief Executive, as thousands were joining the party after September 2014. In it he urged new members to recruit their friends, family and colleagues. He referred to the SNP as a “people’s force for change.” Yet now they exclude the following motion submitted by the SNP Trade Union Group from the conference agenda:

CREATIVE USE OF TAXATION

In view of the damaging impact of the cost-of-living crisis, the severe cash squeeze faced by the Scottish Government as it negotiates its spending review, and the opportunity for Scotland to model itself on small progressive European nations (highlighted by a renewed case for independence), conference urges the creative use of revenue generating opportunities to move us towards a better future.

We wish to see extended use of limited tax powers under devolution to protect public investment and expenditure in the face of further UK-driven austerity, and to further our aims of a more just and equal society.

In pursuing recovery from the pandemic, avoiding damaging cuts, and building purposeful partnerships for economic change – not least with trade unions and people in local communities – conference therefore calls for practical moves to:

– Increase the tax contribution of higher earners across Scotland.

– Grant local authorities the power and discretion to introduce taxes which appropriately meet local needs and protect local services.

– Speed up the reform of local authority finance, including replacing the council tax with a new residential property tax related to actual value.

Conference recognises that many smaller European nations which an independent Scotland will seek to learn from generate substantially more revenue through taxation, generate more revenue locally, and enjoy significantly lower inequalities of wealth and income.

In making the case for Scotland’s prosperous, self-governing future, we believe that it is essential to use existing powers, however limited, to continue to protect our country from the ravages of UK policies, and to build deeper and wider support for gaining the economic powers to improve life for all which can only come with independence.

These proposals are very moderate ones. Yet the leadership can’t seem to debate them. Such control freaky is having a disastrous impact on policy making. Not only is the case for independence moribund, the domestic agenda is failing to rise to the challenges of the era too.

The motion is also absolutely correct in its concluding paragraph. Using existing powers to address the fundamental concerns of Scots is not a deviation from building towards independence. Quite the opposite, in fact.

All talk no action

That is a criticism not just of the SNP, but the Scottish Government as a whole. Note that since the Scottish Greens have joined the government, they have played an especially regressive role, by dropping their oppositional stances at the same time as providing left cover and bureaucratic justification for voting against menial proposals in the parliament.

Far from utilising Holyrood as a “people’s parliament” they have elevated procedural and administrative tools to rationalise inaction on policies which prioritise the working class.

The rent freeze is a good example of this. Such a policy is especially important now because the Scottish Government are, we are told, looking to bring in rent controls in 2025. Why it should take so long is one question, and how robust they will be if they come to pass, is another. But what we do know is that it is incentivising landlords to raise their rents in advance in order to extract as as much capital as they can.

The rent increases are, in many cases, vast. Some tenants have seen their rents go up by 20 percent. Experts in the field warn that the true impact of rent hikes doesn’t come through in the official figures.

Take the example of Barbara Welsh, a university administrator who earns a salary of £32, 817. Her rent has increased by a whopping 28 percent. She says:

“The rent increase is huge. I am going to have to move out of Glasgow to a lower-priced property. The landlord said it was because their costs are going up. I asked for a more reasonable increase, but they refused.”

In the first three months of this year, 77 families were removed from their homes, compared to just 4 in over the same period in 2021. As the cost of living soars, the Scottish Government could, right now, freeze rents.

The rent freeze could be one part of a package of policies geared towards the cost of living emergency. Yet in the face of groups like the Living Rent Campaign, the Greens resort to the law as being a barrier, without any real explanation as to why.

For lots of the “progressive” Scottish commentariat politics is a surface level sport. They can be assuaged by displays of Twitter barbs aimed at the Tories. Meanwhile young working class Scots are part of a generation where the educational attainment gap has almost doubled from 7.8 to 15 percent. This is a direct reflection of the poverty and inequality that is so deeply embedded in Scotland.

The First Minister has had nothing to say of this development despite proclaiming that education should be the benchmark on which to judge her government. At the same time, nothing is said of the many initiatives the SNP could have conducted. They could have:

  • Developed a strategy for District Heating Systems to aid in the fight against fuel poverty
  • Implemented their 2016 manifesto commitment to a Good Food Nation Bill in order to enhance Scotland’s food system for the long term instead of prevaricating until 2022
  • Carried out their 2017 declaration to set up a National Energy Company
  • Replaced the Council Tax with a progressive alternative
  • Introduced a Whisky tax to raise billions in reserves

For now, the national question can be used as cover for their domestic failings. But that won’t last forever. Indeed, already workers in the public sector are gearing up for confrontations with the Scottish Government.

The combination of the economic crisis and the failure to realise a referendum process that can deliver independence, I am convinced, has the potential to turn everything we have come to accept about Scottish politics since 2014 on its head.

In a very real sense, supporting independence should not mean uncritical support for the SNP leadership.

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